Making Better Food Choices

Photo by Mike Suarez

Most of the meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs sold in American grocery stores and restaurants come from animals raised under intensive conditions on “factory farms.” Animals on these operations suffer pain and distress as a result of extreme confinement, bodily mutilations without pain relief, and denial of the opportunity to behave normally.

Farm Welfare Percentages

Consumers have the power to change this through the food choices we make every day. Farmers will produce, and retailers will sell, what shoppers demand. Seemingly small changes—like switching to a vegan diet, choosing only higher-welfare products, or consuming fewer animal-based foods in general—can make a big difference in the lives of farmed animals.

Unfortunately, the knowledge required to navigate the complicated world of food labeling claims is not always easy to obtain. If consumers are not provided with clear information on the meaning and integrity of animal-raising claims such as “free range” and “humanely raised,” they can be easily misled into purchasing a product that is not consistent with their personal values.

AWI is committed to helping compassionate consumers locate food from animals raised to higher-welfare standards, as well as to exposing inaccurate and misleading labeling schemes.

Know Your Labels

The best way for consumers to help animals is to go vegan. Keeping animal products off your plate is the only way to ensure that your food choices do not contribute to animal suffering. Several labels have been created to help consumers easily find these options, such as “Certified Vegan” and “Certified Plant Based,” but many items that contain no products derived from animals may not have such a label.

Many food labels are confusing and some are downright deceptive. If you do choose to consume animal products, one of the best things you can do is to learn how the animals connected with a particular food item are treated. If possible, visit the farm in question. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic option for most people. However, most people live in close proximity to a farmers market where you can meet farmers and learn about their animal-raising practices.

The next best approach is to only choose animal-derived food products that are certified by an independent third party as having come from animals raised on higher-welfare, pasture-based farms. If you cannot find higher-welfare products in a store near you, please tell your local store that you would like to see these products on its shelves, and consider purchasing plant-based alternatives.

The Find Humane website and app helps consumers locate higher-welfare products in their area.

Lastly, the Cornucopia Institute’s organic beefpoultryegg, and dairy scorecards can help you find products from higher-welfare farms. The scorecards include links to the farms’ websites to locate where to buy their products.

Common Labels

Below are some of the most common labels applied to dairy, egg, meat, and poultry products rated by their definitions and animal welfare implications. “Best choices” are labels that feature the highest animal care standards and compliance is verified by a third-party auditing program. This category also includes vegan and plant-based foods. “Next best choices” are labels typically that feature lower animal care standards, but compliance is verified by a second-party (such as a trade association) or independent third-party certification program. Labels under the “Beware of these labels” category are meaningless or misleading with regard to animal welfare (they may not be meaningless or misleading for other purposes). To read more about how you can make more informed eating choices, check out our Food Label Guide for detailed explanations on claims used on food packaging.

Best Choices

Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW is the only USDA-approved third-party animal welfare food certification label that supports and promotes family farmers who raise their animals with the highest welfare standards, outdoors, on pasture or range. Standards cover the treatment of breeding animals, animals during transport, and animals at slaughter. All farm locations (rather than merely a representative sample) are routinely audited, and compliance with all standards is required. The program, which was created by the Animal Welfare Institute, is administered by the nonprofit A Greener World (AGW).

Certified Grassfed by AGW is an optional add-on to the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW program. Requires that products come from animals whose diet is 100 percent grass and forage. Animals must be raised outdoors on pasture or range, and they must be managed under the high animal welfare and environmental standards of the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW program.

Global Animal Partnership is a rating program as opposed to a certification program with one set of standards. Producers are rated on a six-tier scale, from Step 1 to Step 5+. Only Steps 4, 5, and 5+ require pasture access for animals. Standards for Steps 1 through 3 are not sufficiently strong to be considered high welfare for farm animals. If you purchase animal products at Whole Foods Markets, look for those labeled as Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Step 4, 5, or 5+.

The Regenerative Organic Certified program is comprehensive and meant to go beyond the USDA's Organic program. Farms must obtain USDA Organic certification as well as certification from either Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership (at step 4 or higher), or Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World. Animals must be raised on pasture; confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and nearly all physical alterations are prohibited. Standards also include the treatment of animals during transport and at slaughter.

Vegan foods contain no products derived from animals. Several certifications, such as Certified Vegan, and Certified Plant Based, have been created to help consumers easily identify these kinds of products. Many foods without such certifications are also vegan. In choosing vegan products that lack certification, check the ingredients. Even if the label says “plant based,” make sure the product doesn’t contain ingredients derived from animals, such as casein, honey, gelatin, lard, tallow, and whey, among others.

Next Best Choices

Administered by the American Grassfed Association, the AGA Certified Grassfed program requires continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100 percent forage (no grain). Feedlots are prohibited. However, pain relief is not required for physical alterations, and there are no standards for the handling of animals during transport or at slaughter. Note: AWI’s rating is based on the program as a “grassfed” claim only, not as a holistic animal welfare claim.

The Certified Humane animal welfare certification program is administered by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care. Although access to the outdoors is not required for meat birds, egg-laying hens, or pigs, indoor environmental enrichment must be provided for these animals. Cattle may be taken off pasture for feeding in a yard or lot. The program offers a “pasture raised” option for eggs that meets AWI standards.

As mentioned above, Global Animal Partnership is a rating program as opposed to a certification program with one set of standards. While not considered high welfare, the standards under Steps 2 and 3 do exceed conventional animal-raising practices. Enrichments are required for poultry and pigs at Step 2, and very limited access to the outdoors and minimal vegetation is provided at Step 3.

OPT Certified Grass-Fed Organic is a third-party certification program administered by Organic Plus Trust, Inc. To qualify for certification, producers must meet all standards for livestock health and living conditions required under National Organic Program regulations and receive USDA organic certification. Standards also require providing a longer grazing period, and a diet that consists of forage only and prohibits grains and grain-derived feeds.

This claim may indicate that a product is 100 percent plant based, but be careful: Some clever advertisers are known for using this claim on products that contain small amounts of animal products such as dairy, eggs, or even meat. When you see this claim, check ingredient lists for animal products or stick to products that are certified.

Real Organic Project certification is meant to go beyond USDA Organic, which is a prerequisite for participation. ROP standards address several insufficiencies of the USDA Organic program, including requiring access to pasture for all animals and disallowing the use of screened-in concrete porches as the only “outdoor access” in poultry operations. However, the standards fall short of a top-tier recommendation: Calves may be individually housed until weaning, tie stalls and stanchions are permitted during milking, dehorning is permitted, castration of pigs is permitted up to 14 days of age, there is no minimum weaning age for pigs, and there is no restriction on length of transport.

The Regenerative Organic Certified certification program is comprehensive and meant to go beyond the USDA's Organic program. USDA Organic certification is a prerequisite. Unlike the ROC program for other animals, dairy producers are not required to obtain an animal welfare certification to enter the program, though it is required to move up to the “silver” or “gold” levels of the certification. Tie-stall barns and individual calf hutches are permitted during a two-year transitional period. Dehorning and disbudding are permissible under specified circumstances, but use of hornless breeds is recommended as an alternative.

Beware of These Labels

The label is meaningless when used on chicken or turkey products since, in the United States, birds raised for meat are not typically housed in cages.

CARE Certified is a program developed by Where Food Comes From, Inc. that focuses on three core areas: animal husbandry, environmental stewardship, and people and community. Currently, standards only exist for cattle and pigs, but some producers market their products for other animals under the certification despite the lack of developed standards. The animal husbandry standards used by CARE Certified are based upon industry guidelines and do not demonstrate a meaningful improvement in animal care. Notably, the cattle standards do not apply to feedlot confinement, which can constitute a large percentage of the animal’s life, and the pig standards permit the use of gestation crates.

The federal government does not have a set of independent standards for certifying products as “humanely raised.” The department will merely verify that the producer has met its own standards based on its own definition of the term; as such, the claim may simply represent a marketing tactic with little relevance to animal welfare. Because these claims have not been defined by the USDA, they should be considered meaningless and/or misleading, unless verified by a third-party certification.

Farm Animal Care Training & Auditing (FACTA) is an auditing company that offers training, verification, and certification services to producers. FACTA offers two categories of audits: (1) auditing to any standard a producer wishes to comply with, including industry-based guidelines, or (2) auditing to a standard developed by FACTA itself that is based on minimum industry animal care standards. Because both options are designed for companies that wish to follow minimum industry standards, extreme confinement and lack of outdoor access is permissible.

This label claim merely means that the product has no artificial ingredients and was minimally processed. The claim has no relevance whatsoever to how the animals were raised.

This claim has some relevance in terms of animal welfare for beef, bison, and lamb products. However, hormones are already prohibited by federal regulation for use in poultry, pork, and veal products. Use of a “no hormones” claim on the label of these latter products is therefore superfluous and does not distinguish them as higher welfare or healthier than any competing poultry, pork, or veal product.

The USDA conducts audits to verify that the company is following its own standards in raising animals. Hence, the meaning of a term such as “humanely raised” can vary widely among producers and all can receive USDA Process Verified approval for the claim. Even products from factory-farmed animals can carry the USDA PVP seal.